I was introduced to Sonya Chung and her first novel, Long for this World, at a bookstore author appearance and I anticipated liking it. (See my post Author Readings, March 12th.) Still, I was really impressed by how good it is and how compelling the characters and the story are.
The story is that of the members of the Han family, some of whom have emigrated to the United States and some who have remained in Korea. Told from the perspective of Jane, an American-born daughter of immigrants, it develops the personal stories and the emotions of a handful of characters and in so doing, explores a number of themes including: the Korean-American experience; the immigrant experience; family and sibling relationships; friendship and attraction; and ultimately, on how the currents on which our lives float are formed by people and events around us, some close and some at some distance in time and place.
The portrait of Jane, the narrator, a photojournalist, is a real achievement. I was interested in her as soon as the story began and she just kept becoming more fascinating throughout the book. Making her a photojournalist and in fact a war correspondent was a very good artistic decision. It allows the author to describe events and characters visually within the media of a novel that is after all created of words and in that way, abstract. Jane views the world through a camera’s lens and we see it framed in ways that she chooses. It is a very effective device. At her presentation, Ms. Chung indicated that she had worked hard to render this character realistically despite the fact that she herself had little personal experience with photography or photojournalism before researching for the book.
There seems to be conversation at how this book speaks to female readers especially. I would like to add that I find the portrayal of male characters especially engaging. As an older man, father of three grown daughters, I identified with the immigrant physician Han Hyun-kyu and understood deeply his need to return to Korea and take a different look at his life and his world. He is an especially silent man but his character is somehow eloquent at conveying an unidentified longing for something more. (Note the title).
In Korea, we are introduced to Chae Min-suk, a visual artist, who helps move the plot forward, but whose personal life and art are of great interest as well. I was especially impressed with the depiction of Jane’s younger brother Henry. His struggle with addiction and recovery, and his sister's sense of responsibility for him, is central to understanding her and her family. His is a different kind of “longing” and I was left thinking a lot about him and his relationship to his sister. I believe that Ms. Chung has succeeded wonderfully at writing a book about interesting men who deserve our attention and who have something to say to us, both male and female readers.
Jane’s mother, pointedly referred to as Dr. Lee by her own children, is a complicated and difficult character. The author has written honestly about her and the damage she inflicts on her family, but I still found the description of the character respectful and ultimately understanding.
One reviewer comented that reading Ms. Chung’s exploration of the history of the Han family will make readers examine their own families I had that same sense. In fact, I felt that if I could provide Ms. Chung with stories about my own immediate and extended family, she could develop an exciting, descriptive narrative to help make sense of it all.
Sonya Chung’s writing reminds me of Chekhov. I think it might be the development of character and family relationships through attention to small but significant details and events.
Another reviewer compares reading Long for this World to attending a photo display at a gallery, but in such a way that the reader is required to make the connections between the images displayed and any larger meaning of the book. I agree that we are treated to a number of very vivid images but I feel that the novel is also tightly structured and very effective in narrating a larger, comprehensive story.
The title is wonderful and promises what the book delivers. The cover photo of the hardcover edition is also perfect and this visual image conveys the tone precisely. I am sure it will entice some readers to the book.
Long for this World is a fascinating and compelling read. I am recommending this book to friends and I eagerly look forward to reading more of Sonya Chung’s work in the future.